Holy Mountains, Hiking and Museums: 8 Things To Do in Yamagata

Yamagata cherries

From mountain-top temple Yamadera to Dewa’s three sacred peaks, mountains remain at the heart of rural Yamagata’s unique identity.

The origins of the name ‘Yamagata’ can be traced all the way back to the Heian Period (794-1192): a dictionary from the time refers to the area as such, writing it with Chinese characters meaning “place with mountains”. Nowadays, the name Yamagata is written with characters meaning “mountain shape” or “mountain form”, but the importance of its many mountains to the character of the prefecture remains the same.

No one knows which mountain or mountains in particular inspired the naming, but Yamagata’s peaks - including Mt. Zao, Mt. Ryuzan and the three sacred mountains of Dewa - have long been known for their connections to Shugendo, traditions of mountain spirituality and asceticism. Get under the skin of Shugendo by hiking between Dewa Sanzan’s triplet of shrines representing birth, death and rebirth, hanging out with a ‘yamabushi’ (mountain ascetic) to learn some of the tricks of the trade, and seeing the mummified bodies of yamabushi monks viewed as ‘living Buddhas’. 

A large prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast in the south of the Tohoku region, aside from its many mountains, Yamagata is known for its hot springs, natural beauty, rural flair and top quality agricultural products, especially cherries. Unique attractions in the prefecture include Zao with its crater lake, ‘snow monsters’ and ski resort; the world’s largest collection of jellyfish at Kamo Aquarium; and a museum dedicated to prolific Japanese photographer Ken Domon holding over 70,000 of his works.

That’s in addition to a historic silver mine, public baths and rice warehouses in Ginzan Onsen and Sakata, and many art and history museums including the Honma Art Museum, housed inside a lavish former samurai mansion with a splendid Japanese garden alongside.

1. Visit Yamadera, the Mountain Temple

Yamadera Temple

Yamadera - whose name literally means ‘mountain temple’ - is Japan’s original mountain-top temple. Founded over a thousand years ago, Yamadera’s official name is Risshakuji Temple, but it is more commonly known by its very fitting nickname. A scenic temple located in the mountains near Yamagata City, its temple grounds extend high up a steep mountainside, with the upper area accessed by a hiking trail including numerous flights of stone steps. 

Know you always have to slog up a bunch of stairs to get to the good bits at many temples and shrines in Japan? Yamadera offers you this quintessential Japanese experience, but ramped up to near-epic proportions - the stone path up the mountain has about 1,000 steps! However, we are reliably informed that the gruelling ascent is more than worth it for the fabulous views of the surrounding area at the top. The climb takes about 30 minutes from the start of the trail at the Sanmon Gate. On the way you’ll pass rows of stone lanterns and Buddhist statues in the forest, the Mida Hora rock, said to be shaped like Buddha, and the Niomon Gate.
 
At the top, take a few minutes to explore the Kaisando Hall and the Nokyodo Hall, before tackling the final flight of stairs to reach the Godaido Hall, dating from the 1700s, with its wooden observation deck extending out over the cliff-face. Your glutes may not thank you, but your eyes and camera roll will - from here you’ll be able to enjoy sublime, panoramic views of the forested mountains and the valley below. The start of the temple complex is a five minute walk from Yamadera train station. There are many shops, restaurants and a visitor centre on the way from the station to the temple.

 

Bonus: ‘Meet’ Poet Matsuo Basho

Buddha statues at Yamadera Temple ©JTA

Yamadera is also famous for a visit there by the famous Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho in the late 1600s. On his famous journey to Japan’s deep north he stopped off at the temple and composed one of his most well-known haiku there, about the silence and stillness of the surrounding area. 

Fans of Basho in particular or Japanese haiku and poetry in general can spend a half-day seeking out a statue of Basho and a stone inscription of the poem in the lower temple grounds, and learning more about the famous poet at the Basho museum in the Fuga no Kuni entertainment complex to the south of Yamadera and the train station. 

2. Encounter Your Past, Present and Future at Dewa Sanzan

Dewa Sanzan ©JTA
 
Nestled deep in the remote, hilly Yamagata countryside, Dewa Sanzan’s three peaks form a noteworthy center of Shugendo, a Japanese folk religion based on mountain worship that blends together elements of both Japan’s major religions - Shinto and Buddhism. 
 
Meaning ‘the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa’, the Dewa Sanzan are three holy mountains each crowned by a Shugendo shrine. The three mountains, named Haguro-san, Gas-san and Yudono-san, represent birth, death and rebirth, respectively, and are usually visited in that order for that reason. 

Broadly speaking, Yudono-san is the most sacred of the three mountains, Gas-san is the highest of the three mountains, and Haguro-san is the most accessible of the three mountains. In winter, heavy snowfall means that only Haguro-san remains open, so for tourists and pilgrims who want to see all three mountains, the best time to visit is between July and mid-September.

Enjoy an Entertaining Hike to Haguro-san’s Shrine

Haguro Pagoda
 
The easiest way to reach the top of Haguro-san is via the toll road that whisks visitors by vehicle to the top in no time at all. However, the fun way is to access the shrine via a walking trail which leads from the bottom to the top of the mountain through a cedar forest with around 2,500 stone steps. The high number of steps might not sound like your idea of ‘fun’, but before you discount it, bear in mind that there is a number of interesting attractions en route to liven up the climb.
 
Before you begin your climb, stop off at the Ideha Museum, with information and exhibits explaining Dewa Sanzan, Shugendo and yamabushi (mountain ascetics). A few minutes into the trail, standing in a small clearing you’ll stumble across the five-storied Haguro-san Pagoda, softly illuminated by the sunlight filtering through the trunks of the neighbouring cedar trees. Further along the trail is a teahouse offering weary hikers drinks, snacks, souvenirs and even a free hiking certificate. Keep children and adults alike amused throughout the hike by seeing if you can spot the 33 hidden figures carved into the stone steps - said to bring prosperity to anyone who can find them all.

Saikan, just before the summit, offers temple lodging (shukubo) experiences, that must be booked in advance. Once you finally reach the top, wheezing and panting, you’ll find a final couple of goodies waiting for you in the form of the Dewa Sanzan Historical Museum and Haguro-san shrine’s main building, whose main claim to fame is its thatched roof, the thickest in Japan at over two metres.
 

Get Purified at Gas-san’s Shrine

Mt Gassan ©Gassan.Nishikawa
 
The tallest of Dewa Sanzan’s three mountains, Gas-san’s shrine is perched atop its summit at a height of nearly 2,000 metres above sea level. The summit is inaccessible by road - the paved road ends at a car park five kms from the summit, and the remainder of the journey must be made on foot.

Alternatively, you can hike from the bottom to the top in around three hours. The treeless hiking trail allows hikers to enjoy the spectacular surrounding mountain scenery, including wild alpine flower fields, marshes and patches of leftover summer snow. Due to heavy snowfall and lack of paved roads, Gas-san’s summit is closed for most of the year so make sure to visit during the summer months if you want to see the shrine. 

On reaching the shrine, you must participate in a short purification ceremony before entering (the priests are well-used to guiding non-Japanese speaking visitors through the rites). After being purified, offer your prayers at the shrine’s altar, have a sip of sake, and light a candle or incense stick before continuing on your way.
 

Shrouded in Secrecy: Visit Yudono-san’s Shrine

There are two options for accessing Yudono-san: the energetic/traditional approach - hiking for around three hours on a steep descent from the preceding shrine on Gas-san - or the lazy/modern approach - walking the 200 metre stone pathway from the nearby car park or bus stop. On arrival, you will be asked to remove your shoes to undertake purification rites in your bare feet before entering the shrine. 

The First Rule of Yudono-san is: you do not talk about Yudono-san. As the most sacred of the three Dewa Sanzan shrines, Yudono-san is also full of secrecy and mystery. It is believed to be so sacred that it is forbidden to either talk or hear about what goes on inside the shrine, and there is a strict ban on all photography - so you’ll just have to visit for yourself to find out.
 

Bonus: Meet a Yamambushi (Mountain Ascetic)

 
©Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau
 
Practitioners of Shugendo are called ‘yamabushi’, or mountain ascetics. Yamabushi spend their time training and performing feats of endurance such as long pilgrimages and endurance of the outside elements as a way to transcend the physical world. While you’re in the area, spend a day with a yamabushi in the mountains - see here for more information. 

Or witness evidence of the most extreme example of yamabushi’s religious devotion and physical endurance at nearby Churenji Temple and Dainichibo Temple, where you can see the somewhat gruesome sight of the bodies of two yamabushi monks who succeeded as preserving themselves as ‘living Buddhas’ (sokushinbutsu’ - mummies to the less religiously inclined) through a process of extreme fasting and meditation.
 

3. Step Back in Time at Ginzan Onsen

 
Ginzan Onsen at night
 
Take a relaxing hot spring bath, explore the remnants of an abandoned silver mine, and don your yukata for a night-time stroll the picturesque lantern-lit streets of Ginzan Onsen, a secluded traditional and historical hot spring town tucked away in a corner of Yamagata’s mountains - you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve slipped back in time to a bygone era.


Ginzan means ‘silver mountain’ or ‘silver mine’, so you may be unsurprised to learn that the town was originally founded and developed around the economy generated by the silver mine at the back of the town. The mine was opened over 500 years ago and served as the town's lifeblood during the early Edo Period. It is long since closed and the majority of its labyrinthine maze of tunnels is closed to visitors, but you can visit a couple of sections of the mine - the tunnel at the entrance and another section located a short 10-15 minute walk up into the valley along a nature trail and past a constantly rushing 22-metre tall waterfall.

With its eponymous silver mine long since shuttered, these days Ginzan Onsen is most famous as a picturesque hot spring town. After working up a sweat hiking up to the silver mine, return to the town for a refreshing soak to wash the dust and sweat off. Take your pick from a public foot bath (free of charge), two public baths (300-500 yen), Omokageyu, a public bath for private use (2000 yen per 50 minutes), or historic indoor baths at one of the town’s many ryokan (traditional inns) (300 to 1500 yen).
 
Yunotsu Preservation District
 
Ginzan Onsen’s town centre is lined with historic ryokan bordering both sides of the river running through the town’s center. The original buildings are easily recognisable by their exposed, dark wooden and white plaster walls, evoke nostalgic feelings of a bygone era. The one exception is the Fujiya ryokan, recently rebuilt by Japanese architect Kuma Kengo to a modern design that nevertheless incorporates many traditional design elements, such as the same exposed wood and white plaster walls. One of the town’s two public baths, Shiroganeyu, was also designed by Kuma Kengo.

Due to the narrow, historical streets and the absence of parking spaces, Ginzan Onsen’s town centre is a pedestrian-only zone. At night, the ryokan lining the riverbanks are lit up and the town’s bridges and street corners are illuminated by gaslight, turning the town centre into a veritable haven for strollers. In summer, staying ryokan guests clad in colourful yukata can be seen out and about taking the air, while in winter the townscape is accentuated by the layers of heavy snow that cling to its rooftops and walkways.
 

4. View Natural Wonders at Zao Onsen

Zao Onsen Spa Ski Resort
 
Straddling the border between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures is Mt. Zao, a 1,800 metre high active volcanic mountain range. In summer, it lures in outdoor enthusiasts with the magical beauty of the cauldron-esque Okama Crater lake, while in winter, Zao Onsen ski resort is one of only a few places in Japan where you can see ‘snow monsters’ (frozen trees). For more about attractions on the Miyagi side, see our previous article on top activities in Miyagi here.
 

On the Yamagata side, the top attraction is undoubtedly the hot spring town of Zao Onsen.  With a PH value of almost 1, Zao Onsen’s waters are some of Japan’s most acidic. You can enjoy them at a variety of different bath houses across the town, ranging from small, old-fashioned sento (public baths) to modern facilities. However, the highlight is arguably Zao Dai-Rotemburo, with its large, outdoor baths situated in a forested valley right alongside a mountain river (closed in winter).

Zao Snow Monsters

The multitude of hot baths also makes the ideal environment for enjoying the most Japanese of apres ski activities in winter, when Zao Onsen turns into a leading ski resort. One of Japan’s oldest ski resorts, Zao Onsen ski resort has over 30 lifts, gondolas and ropeways, offering many long runs with good snow and slopes for all skill levels. It is also one of only a few places in Japan where ‘snow monsters’ - also known less poetically as  ‘juhyo’ (‘ice trees’) in Japanese - can be seen.

The snow monsters - trees that have taken on bizarre shapes due to the heavy snowfall and freezing winds - form each year at the summit of the mountain, and are usually at their most spectacular and intact around mid February. Access to the monsters for both skiers and non-skiers is by a ropeway or gondola. After darkness falls, the monsters are lit up and can be equally be enjoyed from outside or from a cosy seat in the cafe. Alternatively, Zao’s longest, 10km course starts in the territory of the snow monsters at the summit of the mountain, allowing to kill two birds with one stone. 

5. Commune with Jellyfish at Kamo Aquarium

 
Kamo Aquarium
 
Are you a fan of jellyfish and all other critters of the sea? If so then while in Yamagata you should definitely make a beeline for Kamo Aquarium in Tsuruoka City, said to house the world’s largest collection of jellyfish! As well as a solid collection of fresh and saltwater fish from local waters and a bevvy of performing seals, the aquarium is home to an impressive collection of jellyfish, said to be the world’s largest. 


The soothing benefits of the jellyfishes’ gently swirling forms can best be appreciated by indulging in a spot of what the locals refer to as “jellyfish appreciation”. Watch dozens of different species of jellyfish drifting in backlit tanks among low-level mood lighting, creating a calming and relaxing effect as you watch them swirl and dance (and sometimes get tangled in a knot - but hey, that’s part and parcel of life as a jellyfish).

Once you’ve been lulled into a trance by the jellyfishes’ hypnotic dance, don’t forget to snap out of your daze for long enough to head to the in-house cafe to try their jellyfish ramen or jellyfish ice cream! There’s also a jellyfish farm, where you can see thousands of tiny, unborn jellyfish being incubated before they making their grand appearance into the world.

6. Feel Photogenic at the Ken Domon Museum

Sakata City Art Museum

Once you’ve had your fill of the dreamy world of dancing jellyfish, hop in your car for the 30-minute drive north along the coast to the Ken Domon Museum, a museum of photography dedicated to the acclaimed local photographer, Ken Domon (1909-1990), one of the most famous and prolific 20th century photographers and a native of Sakata.

Before his death, Domon donated around 70,000 (yes, you read that number correctly!) of his photographs to Sakata City, and these became the basis for the museum’s main collection. Set in beautiful natural surroundings in a modern, angular building designed by famous Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, when it opened in 1983 it was the first ever museum of photography in Japan.

Explore the museum’s three galleries - two of which feature rotating seasonal exhibitions of selections of photographs on a different theme such as ancient pottery or religious idols, and the third which showcases works by photographers associated with Ken Domon. Known for his realistic shots of ordinary people engaged in everyday life as well as his images of Buddhist statues and temples, there is sure to be a side of Ken Domon’s work that appeals to everyone.

7. Visit Sakata’s Historic Rice Warehouses

Sankyo Warehouses

Drive north for ten minutes across the bridge into the centre of Sakata City for your next destination - the Sankyo Warehouses, a series of photogenic, historic rice warehouses. Sakata is a historic commercial city on the Sea of Japan coast. Sakata emerged in the Edo Period as a major trade hub on Japan’s most important shipping trade route, which connected Hokkaido and northern Japan with Osaka via a series of ports along the Sea of Japan.

Sakata made its money from rice, Japan’s grain-shaped white “gold”, which became its most lucrative commodity. While most of Japan is mountainous, Sakata lies on the Shonai Plain, one of Japan’s few large plains that is ideally suited for cultivating rice. For hundreds of years, rice grown on the plain has been stored in the warehouses before being sent out on the shipping route. Amazingly, most of the storehouses are still used for storing rice today. 

Originally dating to the late 1800s, the row of fifteen warehouses is visited for its historical importance as much as for its picturesque environs. The warehouses are set in attractive riverside surroundings along a path flanked with mature Zelkova trees. Take a turn along the tree-lined path before venturing inside to explore the warehouses’ rice museum and shops.

The Historical Museum of Shonai Rice showcases exhibits relating to the history and processes of rice harvesting - try hefting the weighted bag to experience the burden that rice workers had to carry. Once you’ve become an expert on rice cultivation, head to the Yume no Kura complex shop, which sells souvenirs as well as local crafts and produce.
 

8. Visit the Honma Museums in Sakata

Honma Art Museum
 
The history of Sakata is inextricably linked to the fortunes of the Honma clan, a wealthy merchant family who dominated local trade and commerce in the Edo Period. If you’ve ever wanted to visit a grand old Japanese home, then now is your chance! Three minutes drive or ten minutes walk north across a small river is the Honma Residence.

Dating from the late 1700s, it is the former residence of the Honma clan, who lived here until as recently as 1945 and was transformed into a museum in the 1980s. Explore the imposing entrance gate, traditional tatami rooms, and Edo Period kitchen and imagine yourself stepping back in time to a bygone era where merchants and samurai vied for political and economic supremacy.

 

Honma Art Museum

Then head to the other site in Sakata associated with the Honma Family - the Honma Art Museum, which was the first privately-owned art museum in postwar Japan. A further five minutes drive or fifteen minutes walk north of the old family home. The museum is housed inside a lavish villa and garden that was originally built in the early 1800s as the Honma family’s holiday home. Most of the museum’s art exhibits can be found inside the main building, instantly recognisable by its modern concrete walls and upturned roof.
 
However, the real attraction for non-Japanese visitors is probably the spacious, lavish original villa and its immaculate Japanese garden. Amble around the strolling garden’s central pond and winding network of walking paths. Then climb upstairs to the expansive tatami room in the upper floor of the villa from where the garden can be viewed in all its glory from a bank of original windows along one side of the building. Stop off for refreshments at the villa’s cafe downstairs before hopping back in your car or heading to Sakata Station, a few minutes walk away.

 

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